How new policies can handle late clients

When clients are late and miss their appointment times, an option may be to have them wait for an opening or a ‘work-in’

While delays are bound to happen, they are disruptive. When one person runs late, it causes a domino of late starts for remaining appointments. Photo © Monkey Business Images Ltd / Monkey Business / Getty Images Plus
While delays are bound to happen, they are disruptive. When one person runs late, it causes a domino of late starts for remaining appointments.
Photo © Monkey Business Images Ltd / Monkey Business / Getty Images Plus

We have all heard the excuses: “I got stuck in traffic.” “I had to crawl under the bed to catch my cat and wrestle to get him in the carrier.” “I was in a meeting that ran late.”

Whatever the excuse may be, late clients are disruptive. When one person runs late, it causes a domino of late starts for remaining appointments. Multiple consequences happen—your practice looks disorganized, on-time clients spend more time in the waiting room, and your team feels rushed.

With current out-of-control appointment demands, you must be the boss of your schedule. You want to be able to give each client and patient the full amount of time set aside for their appointments. What follows are some options on how to handle clients who are late for appointments.

Create a policy

While clients may occasionally show up late, habitually tardy clients disrespect your time and services. You can prevent this bad behaviour.

Just as your hospital has a financial policy, have a late and no-show policy, holding clients accountable and setting expectations in a professional, respectful way. Add the policy to your new client registration, online patient history forms, and online or app scheduling tools.

Here is a sample late policy:

We ask you to arrive before your scheduled appointment time so you may benefit from your full exam time. New client and patient history forms should be completed in advance to help our medical team prepare for your pet’s visit. A grace period of __ minutes will be granted for unforeseen delays you may encounter while travelling to our hospital. If you arrive more than __ minutes late for an appointment, we will offer options of being seen as a work-in, day admission, or rescheduled, if our schedule permits.

We strive to ensure clients and patients are seen in a timely manner and appreciate your on-time arrival. Clients who have three or more late arrivals for appointments cannot schedule future appointments and will only be seen as emergencies or day admissions. Additional fees will apply.

Start with a warning on the first offense. Explain, “I understand you were 15 minutes late to your appointment today. To best serve you, please be on time for future appointments. We send confirmations upon booking and reminders two weeks, four days, and two days before your exam. Let me confirm we have your correct cell number for texts and your email. We appreciate your timeliness so we can give all patients the time they need.”

Put alerts in practice-management software

Track the number of times a client is tardy to identify when a one-time occurrence becomes a chronic behaviour. I follow a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Forgive a first offense—you have been unexpectedly delayed in traffic, too.

When you see three late arrivals within one year, decide whether to keep or end the client relationship. Allowing the chronic behaviour to continue is your fault.

Text late clients

Sending text reminders when a client does not show up on time puts you in control and lets you determine the options you are able to offer. If you see appointments every 15 minutes, send the text when the client is five minutes late. For 30-minute exams, reach out when the client is 10 minutes overdue.

Send this text: “We expected to see you at 3 p.m. for Max’s appointment. Reply YES and your expected arrival time if you’re on the way here, or RS to reschedule.”

(Obviously, clients should follow laws about not texting while driving.)

Show appreciation

When clients call ahead and say, “Hey, I’m running late,” this is honest and conscientious behaviour. Reply, “Thanks for calling to let us know. What time do you expect to arrive?”

If you get a vague response of, “I’m leaving my house now,” ask again, “What time will you arrive at our hospital?” Once you get a response, say, “Thanks for letting us know. Please drive carefully. We look forward to seeing you soon.”

Do not make promises over the phone—and never punish on-time clients by letting a late client cut in front of them. If a late client is 25 minutes away and has a 30-minute appointment, only five minutes of exam time will remain. Explain, “Once you get here, I will let you know options for us to see your pet today.”

Best course of action

Once a late client arrives, consider what option works best for your schedule:

  • Option 1: If the client arrives a few minutes late with three-fourths of the appointment time remaining (i.e. 20 minutes of the 30-minute appointment), go ahead and see the patient. Alert a technician or assistant who can start the appointment immediately and help get the day’s schedule back on track.
  • Option 2: See another doctor if one is available. Explain, “Dr. Jones has started his next appointment. Dr. Smith can see you now. Let me take you to Exam Room 3.” (Unfortunately, as every veterinarian at your hospital is likely fully booked with the current appointment demand, this option may be a rarity.)
  • Option 3: Ask if the client can wait and be seen as a work-in. Explain, “Dr. Jones has started his next appointment. We want Max to get the care he needs. We will see Max as soon as the first doctor becomes available, which may be 45 or more minutes. Are you able to wait, or do you prefer to reschedule?”
  • Option 4: Offer to reschedule. Use the yes-or-yes technique, focusing on what you can do. Say, “My next available appointment is Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. or Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. Which do you prefer?”
  • Option 5: Offer a day admission—never use the term ‘drop-off,’ which is tacky and unprofessional. Explain, “We can see your pet as a day admission. For 10 to 15 minutes, you will meet with a technician who will get your pet’s vital signs, ask questions about your pet’s symptoms to share with the doctor, set a pickup time, and provide the expected cost of care. Because your pet will stay with us throughout the day and receive nursing care, there is a day admission fee of $XX. Shall we admit your pet to the hospital, and have you talk with the technician?”

For consistency and simplicity, I suggest creating a flat rate for day admissions, such as $50. This day admission fee is charged in addition to the exam fee and other services.

What works for you

Options for seeing late-arriving clients will vary based on your schedule in that moment. You may only have one option or all five available. When a late client arrives at your hospital, your goal is to be a problem solver. You’ll hear words of thanks from the client for making care happen.

When you set clear expectations and follow your late policy, you will stand up for your time, your schedule, and your employees’ mental health. Remember, you train your clients how to treat you.

Wendy S. Myers, CVJ, has been training veterinary teams for 22 years as owner of Communication Solutions for Veterinarians. She teaches teams to become confident communicators, so more pet owners say yes to medical care. Myers shares her expertise through conferences, online courses, and monthly live CE credit webinars. She is a certified veterinary journalist and author of five books. Her passion is to help practices like yours thrive and grow through effective communication skills. You may reach her at

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